The Hawks were fortunate to be unfortunate to lose Game 1 given how meekly they bent to the will of Cleveland's defensive game plan in the first half (You're really going to let us take all these contested two-point shots in the paint?!) and how the offense drifted away, over the final six-and-a-half minutes, from what had gotten them back in the game. Inattention, or a lack of commitment, to details will condemn the Hawks to a series loss (that is probable anyway, but humor me).
Here are the best ways the Hawks can try to win the series:
- Paul Millsap, Al Horford, or Thabo Sefolosha guards LeBron James on every possession. The Hawks, inferior shooters, have to attempt more three-pointers than the Cavs to have any chance of winning. Suppress Cleveland's three-point volume by encouraging Kevin Love post-ups with 12 seconds or less left on the shot clock. Bonus: If Love is shooting, the Hawks only have one rampant offensive rebounding big man to account for.
- Grabbing 76% of defensive rebounds isn't great, it's average, but average defensive rebounding is a bonus for the Hawks and better than the league did against the Cavs this season. Between personnel and scheme (Millsap and Horford mitigating a paucity of plus perimeter defenders by defending away from the basket and/or challenging shots at the rim) it takes a collective effort to exceed reasonable expectations. Hard, tiring, necessary work. Do it and I'll lead the accolades.
- Similarly, continue to err on the side of recklessness when closing out on three-point shooters. The Hawks, inferior shooters, have to attempt more three-pointers than the Cavs to have any chance of winning.
- As much as the Hawks struggled to get the ball in the basket against the Celtics, imagine how bad it could have been had Boston demonstrated an ability to execute the commonly accepted rules for guarding Kyle Korver in 2016. Korver got a couple months' worth of open looks off of a single screen. It was remarkable. JR Smith (and Iman Shumpert in reserve) is not going to allow that volume to Atlanta's most consistent offensive player. The response? Back cuts. Between JR Smith's denial and LeBron James' occasional ball-watching, Korver, Kent Bazemore, and Sefolosha will have the opportunity to contribute a handful of high-quality, two-point shots in the halfcourt.
- Make Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love defend the point of attack every halfcourt possession when they're on the floor. The Hawks went away from this the moment Dennis Schroder rested after his 15-point, 3-assist 10:37 stretch across the third- and fourth-quarters. They did not recover.
- I repeat: The Hawks, inferior shooters, have to attempt more three-pointers than the Cavs to have any chance of winning. Schroder and Bazemore had the right idea by launching 10 three-pointers each. Teague, Millsap, and Horford should each do the same at least once in the series.
- Don't throw away any more possessions by having Tim Hardaway, Jr. on the court. You let Iman Shumpert dribble 25 feet from above the break for a layup, you're done for the series. Any of Sefolosha missing open shots, dual-point guard lineups, tired Bazemore or Korver is a better alternative with margins this narrow.
- Related: don't mindlessly use the one-dimensional reserves, either. Mike Scott is capable of helping the offense. Sefolosha and Mike Muscala will help build good defensive possessions. None of the three can overcome their weaknesses in a vacuum. Play them in 5-man units and against 5-man units that will leverage their strengths and mitigate weaknesses.
All of this may well not be enough. If so, I hope the lesson learned is that taking tactical chances at least increased the chances of winning, and similar chances are taken with the roster this summer. Even if Horford re-signs, the window (such as it is) is 12-24 months. Redundant point guards and coaching up guys from unplayable to league-average eighth- or tenth-men is not a talent maximization strategy likely to get you to the finals.
Competence is a welcome change for the Atlanta Hawks franchise but competence used as a platform for the occasional daring leap could create much more.